In the dying minutes of yesterday’s game, 22-goal Ross Stewart planted a header across the Imps goal, which stopper Jordan Wright acrobatically palmed away.
It earned him a host of plaudits, including your Man of the Match (on current ratings), as well as the applause of many around the ground. It was much like a striker bagging a last-minute winner, only instead of us taking all three points, we kept one and got a clean sheet. Wright now has two clean sheets in just eight days; bear in mind Josh Griffiths managed two clean sheets in 210 days.
Of course, that doesn’t tell the whole story of the keepers, just as Wright’s save doesn’t tell the story of yesterday’s game. The narrative is about far more than a superb save (better than Matt Gilks against MK Dons I’d say); it was about a performance that once again just hinted at what might have been this season. If anything, it epitomised the potential around the squad that we were able to keep another star-studded side from beating us. If only we’d played teams in the top six all season, we might just be heading to the Championship now!
Don’t believe me? Against teams in the current top seven this season, we’ve had five wins, four draws and four defeats; two of those defeats against MK Dons (in games we should really have won), one against Oxford with no striker on the field and the other on Tuesday night against Rotherham, where we were the better side in the second half. That is 19 points from 13 games, 1.46 per game; over the season enough to have you knocking on the door of the play-offs. Against those teams below us, we have three wins from 10 matches, 11 points in total, or 1.1 per game. Over 46 matches, that 50 points; barely safety.
Therefore, we stand more of a chance against big clubs with better players, and in Sunderland, there are few bigger. In my eyes, maybe Sheff Weds, but in terms of record attendances for our all-seater stadium, the facts say Sunderland. The Sunderland squad is immense; Jack Clarke (weak in my opinion yesterday) moved from Leeds to Spurs for a fee that could rise to £11.5m in 2019, just three years ago. That’s the same reported fee Manchester City had to pay Fulham for Patrick Roberts, a definite star yesterday, although initially ‘just’ £5m changed hands. On the bench, Jermain Defoe is a huge name in world football, with cumulative fees of £39.6m taking him around the globe, and 27 goals for England underlining his prowess.
Why do I focus on this so early in my write up? Because I want to stress what a mismatch this is in terms of club size. It is easy to think that we’re like Sunderland now; we beat them in the play-offs last season, they needed a penalty shoot-out to stop us from taking their place in the EFL Trophy final, and we’ve claimed their scalp in the league this season. It’s easy, when a team keeps popping up in our fixture list, to think ‘this is where we are now’, but the truth is, we’re still among the poor relations of League One. Not the poorest, not at all, but we’re simply not seated at the top table as we seemed to suggest last season. That’s a point proven by the attendance yesterday; it was phenomenal, but Sunderland get three times as many, every home game (as plenty of their fans would have you know on social media this morning), and feel disappointed if it’s less.
They are a big team, with big players, and when Trai Hume chose them over us n the winter, that showed. Of course, Hume has only played once under the new manager, and had he come to us, he’d likely have five or ten appearances under his belt. Again, that’s where we are. That’s why yesterday’s draw is a great result for this football club, in many ways.
It leaves us nine points clear of the relegation zone, a position I think sees us safe in all but the actual maths. It also showed Michael’s flexibility in terms of how he changes things, or rather, how he can change things to adapt to the opposition. However, he doesn’t do it thinking ‘we need to stop them doing x, y, or z; he does it to make us better, to make our approach better. It’s very different to the period between 2016 and 2019 when we often set up to stop the opposition from playing. It could be argued both methods are as good as the other and as flawed.
Yesterday, it proved to be the case of a tactical masterclass from the manager again getting us a decent result. I like the three at the back, and whilst the narrative is around a keeper keeping us in the game, it should be about two clean sheets from the five games we’ve gone with wing backs. Yes, Jordan Wright has a role to play in that, but a trio of defenders gives him better protection, and it gives the midfield a little more freedom. We lose something in terms of width, but the 3-4-3 (or whatever we term it to be) is successful because Brooke Norton-Cuffy and Cohen Bramall are wing backs, not just full backs. The formation works because of the personnel.
Let’s be honest; even with the formation, a new-found application and urgency, we were second best for the entire first half. It wasn’t a great encounter, and the visitors could, and maybe should have had a penalty early on for a foul on Cirkin.
I liked that lad, their 17; he had lots of pace and energy and liked to get down the flanks. I thought Adam Jackson might have fouled him, but the move progressed only for Luke O’Nien to head over. Jack Clarke missed a couple too, both through our own doing. One saw Chris Maguire play a fairly erratic pass back to BNC, with the visitors winning possession and missing the target, whilst a second saw McGrandles slip before trying to clear, with the visitors winning possession and missing the target. Our best chance fell to Joe Walsh after a short corner. Oh, how we love those.